Pumped up

She’s famous for her biceps, but student Anna Watson finds strength in her faith

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Pumped up

Watson learned valuable lessons while recovering from surgery on her Achilles tendon. “Being humbled to the point where I can’t even open a door for myself anymore really opened my eyes to other people who have disabilities for life,” she says. “Because this is something that will sideline me for six months, but these people will be in wheelchairs or paralyzed for their entire lives.”

Photo by: Peter Frey

Anna Watson was recovering on her parents’ couch when she became famous. It was January, the day after she’d had surgery to repair her right Achilles tendon—which the UGA cheerleader snapped during a tumbling run—and she was still woozy from anesthesia when her friends texted to tell her that she was featured on Yahoo.com.

She was, frankly, horrified.

The story covered Watson’s decision to turn down a $75,000 fitness modeling contract. The agency offering the opportunity had asked her to take a legal steroid that would increase muscle mass, but she refused.

“When I realized that my worth is in the Lord and is not in photographs and is not in however much money they offer me, then I was more at peace about saying no,” she says.

Watson started her college career in fall 2009 as a cheerleader on scholarship at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. Self described as “stocky” when she arrived, stress and an unbalanced exercise regimen caused her to shed 30 pounds. When she went home for Christmas, her mother looked at her and cried. The next year she began lifting weights and taking a more balanced approach to nutrition and exercise, which helped her regain the weight she’d lost.

But in spring 2010 her scholarship program was cut. During the summer, before she continued her education at the University of West Georgia, she was contacted on Facebook by a model who referred her to an agency for a job that included a hefty paycheck and a three-day photo shoot in Europe. Watson, who already paid close attention to her body image, began training specifically for the gig. She worked hard during her year at West Georgia and continued when she transferred to UGA, arriving last August. When her initial quick progress hit a plateau, the agency wanted to speed up the process with a steroid. Watson said no, The Red & Black wrote a story about it and her life changed almost overnight.

Less than a week after her surgery, “Good Morning America” flew Watson and her family to New York for an interview. She told her story to anchor Robin Roberts, emphasizing the importance of her Christian faith in making the decision. She also appeared on “Inside Edition,” where she arm-wrestled—and beat—correspondent Les Trent. Headlines called her the “strongest cheerleader in the world.”

Watson stayed focused on her recovery. In May she returned to the gym, where she resumed lifting and continued to rehabilitate her ankle. In addition to staying healthy, she had another goal—being able to wear a pair of turquoise and black 5-inch platform heels purchased a week after surgery.

“One of the questions I asked my trainer after surgery was, ‘Will I ever be able to wear heels again?’ because when I wear heels, I go big,” says the 5-foot-9-inch junior from Fayetteville.

To her relief, the answer was yes.

“Those are my true victory heels. When I can wear those, I say that I’ll be completely better.”

But there have been benefits to her injury-induced break. Watson had more time to study for two difficult science classes during spring semester. She spent more time with friends. And since she couldn’t drive, she learned to accept help from others—something that had been difficult in the past. She’s noticed a change in herself since getting back in the gym.

“I used to be more stressed about numbers and time in the gym,” she says. “After I’ve taken a break I’ve seen that it’s something I missed but not something I had to do. It’s more of an enjoyment now, so I’m able to go and just kind of celebrate what the Lord has given me.”

The 21-year-old is majoring in exercise and sports science and wants to work in strength and conditioning training for athletes. She’s also interested in starting a ministry with personal training for women.

“I think it’s so important for women to have confidence on the outside in order for them to be able to discover who they really are on the inside. There’s a lot of lies in the world that tell women they have to be a certain way or a certain mold,” she says. “Through my journey I’ve been 30 pounds underweight and 50 pounds overweight, and either way I wasn’t satisfied with the way I looked.”

She believes the healthiest approach is not to seek perfection, but to find confidence and joy through exercise.

“When the body operates the way it was created to be, then it’s a beautiful thing, and it feels good.”